FOR 70 years, a significant chunk of British taxpayers’ money has been gathering silt. About 500 kilometres from the nearest land and 5km beneath the surface of the Atlantic, NZ$98m of British silver has lain on the seabed. Now, thanks to the deepest salvage operation in history, the British Treasury has got most of its silver back.

On November 6, 1942, the steamer CITY of CAIRO was on a desperate mission. From across the empire, Whitehall had called in Britain’s remaining riches to fund a war that still felt like a threat to its very existence.

Steaming across the Atlantic midway through a perilous journey that began in India and took it around the Cape of Good Hope, the merchant ship was carrying 100 tons of silver rupees to pay for British food and arms. They were never to reach their destination.

Spotted by a U-boat and torpedoed, the CITY of CAIRO was fatally holed. The U-boat captain surfaced amid the lifeboats and pointed them towards the nearest land: St Helena, 800km away, or, as far again but harder to miss, Namibia.

“Goodnight,” he said, “and sorry for sinking you.”

As U-68 left to continue hunting, and the lifeboats embarked on a journey led by Captain William Rogerson that would become one of the epic tales of maritime survival.

It has required extraordinary advances in undersea exploration, but a salvage company led by John Kingsford,  a British deep sea diver, has retrieved most of it. “Operating in 5000 metres is something very few people can do” Kingsford said of the attempt that began in 2011. “Not many people in the world have spent any time working at this depth”

Kingsford and his colleagues realised they had 15,000 square kilometres to search using sonar. This was not the only difficulty. Because of the speed of the impact of the steamer, it was buried deep in mud. Eventually they found it and over several months, brought up most of the 2000 boxes of silver rupees.

The average depth of the oceans is several kilometres. “The British lost thousands of ships in both world wars, and there are a few with large cargoes of precious metal on board.”

Kingsford has identified 14 of interest, and already has contracts to salvage some of them. “I can’t say which,” he said, “I’d be hung by my heels.”

After leaving the SS City of Cairo for the last time, Kingsford’s team placed a plaque near the wreck to remember those who died: 104 of the 311 crew. AII but six of those who died did so after reaching the six overcrowded Lifeboats.

The main body of lifeboats reached St Helena, but three became lost. One eventually made it to South America, an extra 1600km away, with only two people alive, an officer and a woman passenger. Kingsford said it was because of those on board that he was speaking out about the salvage, in an industry that generally rewards secrecy. “They were cast adrift in open boats for weeks on end. It’s a good time to remind people just what these guys in the Merchant Navy went through in both world wars,” he said. “I don’t think people really understand what they did and the Iosses there were in order to keep our country alive.”

The Times

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